I’m a bit late to the party with this review.
I met Allyson (and acquired this collection) at a ghost story reading she organised just before Halloween last year, in a pub on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. I’d dipped into it a couple of times last winter, but then the book disappeared into one of the many teetering stacks that decorate this house and I only rediscovered it the other day. I’m glad I did.
The author has an honest love for the written word and the genre, and this passion certainly comes across in Bull Running for Girls. The writing is subtle, gentle; it doesn’t leap out and grab you like the prose of some of my favourite genre writers such as Gary McMahon or Poppy Z. Brite, but perhaps here lies its strength. The characters and moods carry the tales, and there’s a quiet, modest wisdom that kept me coming back for more.
“The Caul Bearer” opens the collection: a Lovecraftian tale of horror by the sea. The rich imagery and mournful atmosphere are never turgid – as Lovecraft himself could be – and the tale contains a genuine shock, affirming from the off that the author isn’t afraid to tell a story.
Another favourite is “Hunter’s Moon” in which a woman tormented by memories of a terrible housefire escapes to rural France, but discovers that the past – both her own and that of others – won’t leave her alone. This is the story that Allyson read on that misty night almost a year ago, and while she has a very pleasant reading voice, at the time I wasn’t overly impressed. I think the switching tense caused confusion in spoken-word form – perhaps it wasn’t the best choice – but on the page, it’s a powerful tale, and very real, despite the presence of the supernatural.
“Shadow upon Shadow” is a dark nightmare of a ghost story in which a troubled woman having an affair faces an occult evil. It has a brilliant climax, short and understated, as it lets the action speak for itself.
“The Bone Grinder” introduces a budget hotel worker who realises that some of her female colleagues – cheap labour from Eastern-Europe – seem to be disappearing in sinister circumstances. It’s compulsive reading, with a grim theme of how economically disposable human life can be regarded.
A change in tone comes with “The Shy Boy Bar and Eatery” in which we meet a couple of visitors to the establishment of the title; a pirate-themed restaurant on the North Carolina shores. I detected an uneasy atmosphere from the outset, and was prepared for a ghastly descent, but it turns out to be one of the more light-hearted and fun tales.
“The Critic” opens with a magic circle of vampires discussing undead cinema, but the humourous gambit soon makes way for real darkness as the protagonist – a man plagued with grisly visions – is drawn into their undead microcosm. “Wings of Night” immediately follows – another tale of predatory desire – in which a dissatisfied and promiscuous theatre usher searching for identity accidentally discovers a taste for murder.
I particularly enjoyed “In a Pig’s Ear”, a tale of science and evolution. A future scientist bears a son, the product of her own laboratory tinkering, with fascinating consequences. An adept piece of speculative fiction, this is one of those stories that makes you smile with the outrageous possibility of it all.
Also playing with some alternative rules of evolution is “Blood in Madness Ran”, although rather than the future, here we’re back in time and surrounded by Roman Gods and monsters. It’s fast-paced, brutal and full of colourful imagery – like any self-respecting mythology – and the climactic revelation is a joy.
Being a sucker for laughs in horror, “Silence is Golden” is a definite favourite. A widower, struggling to follow his dead wife’s instructions for her funeral, discovers that she will not lie down and rest. Dripping with gallows humour from both the characters and the author, this story has the feel of an old-fashioned farce.
The book is billed as “adventure-horror”, an interesting label that seems perfectly appropriate. In addition to an impressive timeline – this collection spans from ancient times to SF futures – there’s a real international flavour. We visit Hong Kong, France, Spain, China, Pompeii amongst others, and the evocation of these locations suggests that the author is well-travelled, a dedicated researcher or simply has a great imagination. Possibly all three. I was also pleased to discover that “Bull Running for Girls” doesn’t just refer to the title story, picked for its catchy hook, but a metaphor that is present throughout.
It’s not a perfect collection. There’s a couple of weaker stories and it perhaps needed a polish, but there’s a pleasing order to the tales – the triumphs and lows are carefully measured – making it work as a complete reading experience rather than just a coffee-table browser. Allyson Bird has a great eye for detail and understands the small touches that inject reality into a story. It’s a book with genuine heart and feeling – something that can be missing from contemporary horror – and I look forward to what her future craft will bring.
-Edited to add that I’ve just heard this book won “Best Collection” last night at the British Fantasy Society’s awards ceremony at Fantasycon, 2009.